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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Expedition 6, Six Degrees of Separation and A Chorus Line


An Ambitious Production of Bill Pullman's Expedition 6

Expedition 6
Arwen Anderson (on the trapeze) with Robert Karma Robinson, Justin Walvoord, and Brent Rose
Magic Theatre opens its 2007-08 season of new plays with the world premiere theatre event Expedition 6, created and directed by Bill Pullman. This is a motivated docudrama about the personal and political life and death crisis of two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut stranded in space after the Columbia shuttle disaster.

Bill Pullman uses a stylized method of presenting the interesting story of these men and the wives they left behind. He uses the technique that has been used in Our Town, The Laramie Project and The People's Temple, recently seen at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Most of the dialogue is from archival news reports and interviews, and most of the actors talk in monotone, as if giving a lecture on space travel, especially in the first act.

The two-hour piece starts out slow, with act one feeling like an overfilled prologue full of narration of facts on the space station itself. There are repetitive television news reports full of scientific facts that only a science major would appreciate. The drama starts to get the attention of the audience at the beginning of act two. There is indisputable and affecting drama about the crash of the Columbia and the risky attempt to rescue the three men from a Russian spaceship. The play becomes truly mesmerizing.

As the Iraq war becomes front page news the story of the three men trapped in the space station with no exit strategy is relegated to minor news. Islamic references do not seem appropriate, even when a Moslem speaks gleefully of the destruction of the Columbia over President Bush's home state of Texas and of the breaking up of the craft being over Palestine, Texas.

Eight actors play many parts in Expedition 6. Robert Karma Robinson is a fascinating Don Petit, who was a late replacement on the space station crew. Justin Walvoord gives a gripping performance as the no-nonsense Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, and Brent Rose is compelling as the third member of the crew, Ken Bowersox. John Behlmann gives a good performance as Rick Husband, pilot of the Columbia. The astronauts' wives are played by Nora el Samahy and Sally Clawson in strong performances. They are particularly convincing as the women wait to find out if the Russian Soyuz rescue mission has been successful. Arwen Anderson and Karl Hanover are very effective in various roles.

Production values are superb. Robert Davidson's inspired trapeze choreography to represent the weightlessness and flow of life in orbit is excellent. Even the directed movement of the eight actors throughout the production is engrossing. There is a cello, piano and synthesizer score by Gary Grundei to set the mood of the drama. Kate Boyd's lighting is strikingly austere on the bare stage. Sound design by Sara Huddleston provides authentic sounds of the spacecrafts going up into space. Callie Floor's casual street clothes are authentic to the period.

Expedition 6 runs through October 7 at the Magic's Northside Theatre, located in Fort Mason Marina Blvd and Buchanan Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Their next production will be the world premiere of Rebecca Gilman's The Crowd You're In With.

Photo: www.DavidAllenStudio.com


An Inspiring Production of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation
Daveed Diggs and Chad Deverman
SF Playhouse opens its fifth season with a stimulating production of John Guare's masterwork, Six Degrees of Separation, running through November 17th. I first saw this intriguing play at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York during the winter of 1990 with Stockard Channing playing the well-heeled New Yorker Ouisa and Courtney B. Vance playing the young con man Paul. Director Bill English has assembled a superb cast of characters for this top notch production. The 90-minute, one-act drama is just as mesmerizing as the original production in New York.

The play takes place in the luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment of Ouisa Kittredge (Susi Damilano) and her husband Flanders (Robert Parsons). They achieved their sumptuous lifestyle by selling other people's valuable art pieces for enormous sums. They are entertaining a rich and influential white South African man (Ken Sonkin) who intends to broker a very expensive two-sided Kandinsky painting. The group sips cocktails and trades brittle riposte when a young black man named Paul (Daveed Diggs) arrives at the door in torn clothes with an unlikely story of being mugged in Central Park. He claims to be a college friend of the Kittredge's children, and he has no where else to turn. He also claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier; he offers them all small parts in his father's upcoming film adaptation of Cats. Paul has won them over with his smooth talk and they invite him to spend the night in the apartment. However, reality sets in the next morning when Ouisa discovers her houseguest cavorting with a male hustler.

Ouisa also discovers that Paul has been conning their best friends with the same improbable story. The young con artist becomes increasingly absorbed by the role which leads to a lurid turn that includes homosexual seduction, grand larceny and a lover's suicide. The central scam dissolves into the self-analysis and moralization of Ouisa. The play deals with deceptive identity and the genuineness of spirit that allows Paul and Ouisa to break through degrees of separation that isolate people in a large city where there are a lot of phonies.

Susi Damilano (tied for SFBATCC award last year for Best Principal Actress) is brilliant in the role of Ouisa. She is amazing as she changes from heart-stopping vulnerability to being a caring human being. Her speech at the end of the drama is a tour de force of wonderful acting.

Daveed Diggs (Jesus Hopped the A Train, Moving Right Along) is superb as the gay con man Paul. He is extremely charismatic in his opening soliloquy about "Catcher in the Rye." He is compelling in his genuineness and crafty in conveying Paul's ability to be a human sponge. Robert Parson (Little Foxes, Pleasure and Pain, Lonesome West and Private Jokes, Public Places) is excellent as Flanders Kittredge. He is the quintessential educated, slick and superficial social human being.

Chad Deverman (Woyzeck, Taming of the Shrew, First Person Shooter) gives a smooth performance as Harvard student Woody, who unknowingly teaches Paul how to react in upper class society. His attempted seduction scene with Paul is absorbing. Daniel Krueger (Man of La Mancha, Valhalla) shows great acting chops as the young inexperienced man from Utah who gets taken both financially and emotionally by Paul. Jennifer Siebel (films In the Valley of Elah, Rent, Raw Footage) gives a first rate performance as his nave wife who find out that Paul has taken all of their money.

Julia McNeal (Roulette, Summer and Smoke) and John Mercer (Dealer's Choice) are engaging as Kitty and Larkin, who were also taken in by Paul. Ken Sonkin gives a splendid performances as the South African magnate Geoffrey and Dr. Fine. Christopher Maikish (Merrily We Roll Along, Restoration Comedy) is exceptional in the small role of Doug.

Bill English, who directs a fast paced production, also designed an outstanding upscale Manhattan apartment. Bree Hylkema's costumes are beautifully designed for rich and affluent New Yorkers. Her gowns for Susi Damilano are gorgeous. Lights by Selina Young and sound by Chris Houston are first rate.

Six Degrees of Separation plays at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco through November 17. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or on line at www.ticketweb.com.

Their next production will be Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge by Christopher Durang. It will be directed by Joy Carlin.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton


A Very Singular Authentic A Chorus Line at Bus Barn

A Chorus Line

Bus Barn Stage Company is presenting the legendary A Chorus Line on their large bare stage at 97 Hillview Ave, Los Altos. I have seen 27 productions of Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's musical since it first appeared at the Shubert Theatre in 1975. I have seen productions in London, Los Angeles, San Jose and the recent revival in San Francisco.

Director Joe Higgins has assembled a group of seventeen extremely talented triple threat singer/dancer/actors. For a semi-professional company, this is a first class production of the incandescent musical. Mr. Higgins starts the two-hour one-intermission musical with the cast just coming up silently onto the stage and doing a warmup workout without music. This is an effective bit of theatre.

The opening number of the cast doing various dances is very well done, and when they start to sing "I Hope I Get It," you know you are going to see a first class production. The director has inserted a 15-minute intermission just after "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" which can be a little disconcerting since it stops the flow of the musical. Also, he put in a ballet dance by Sarah David, who plays one of the eliminated dancers, just before the big ending number to allow these young dancers/singers to get into their flashy tux outfits for the big finale. One other Higgins touch is when Sheila, played by big and brassy Kirsten Gerding, gives Zach the finger when not accepted for one of the roles at the end of the musical.

Jose Gonzalez, with his infectious smile, plays Mike and shows great tap dancing moves on "I Can Do That." Kirsten Gerding is sublime singing "At the Ballet" aided by the harmonic voices of Angela Nuttman as Bebe and Briann Gagnon as Maggie. Patricia Dwyer and Norman Luce as married couple Kristine and Al are appealing on "Sing!". Patricia is a little loud when singing the song, but Norman shows he has good range in his vocal cords, even when singing in the chorus.

Paul Bolton as Bobby reminds me of Roger Bart with his devilish smile and a hint of Paul Lynde. Jennifer Cuevas as Morales is vibrant as she amuses with "Nothing" as a dig at arty drama teachers and memorable singing on "What I Did for Love" with the ensemble coming in on the chorus.

Corrie Lenn Borris as Cassie is exhilarating, dancing the big number "The Music and The Mirror" with Scenic Designer Ron Gasparinetti supplying mirrors that cover the entire back wall of the stage. There is a certain melancholy quality about her acting that is first rate. Brett Madson gives an effervescent rendition of" Dance: Ten; Looks: Three."

Michael Kaufmann registers strongly as Paul. His poignant story is very heartrending. Jake Van Tuyl gives an effective performance as Don, talking about his early life with a stripper. Bill Olson does what he can with the uninspiring part of director Zach.

Christine Bagube is very droll as Connie, and Ernestine Balisi who plays Ricky (this role is usually played by a male whose name is Richie) shows good singing and dancing chops singing "Gimme the Ball." Pamela S. Broyle, Drew Moore and Alisha Patterson are efficient in their roles as singers/dancers.

Choreography by Tom Segal is energy driven and based on Michael Bennett's original work. Barbara J. Cannon uses the same flashy outfits as the original in the final number, and Scenic Designer Ron Gasparinetti has the large mirrors that change into the art deco design of the original musical.

Pianist Katie Coleman and drummer Ryan Stohs give fine support to the cast.

A Chorus Line plays through October 6th at Bus Barn Theatre located at 97 Hillview Ave. Los Altos. For tickets call 650-941-0551 or visit www.busbarn.org.

Their next production is Albert Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo which opens on November 29th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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